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How Kodai Senga rose to star in Japan and Mets’ $75 million man

Kodai Senga watched with admiration. He watched with envy.

He watched Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka make MLB stars look helpless. He watched Japanese standouts of lesser stature discover that they belonged on baseball’s biggest stage. He watched dozens of his countrymen live his dream, as he remained in Japan. 

His contract left him no choice. 

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks ace voiced his desire to join MLB years ago, but every meeting with ownership and management ended with rejection. He pitched for the only team in Nippon Professional Baseball that has never made its players available to MLB franchises via the posting system.

“He was definitely frustrated, but he would never come out and say it out of respect for the organization,” said former pitcher Dennis Sarfate, Senga’s longtime teammate (2014-21). “He could have been in the big leagues at 25 and been established, like Tanaka or [Shohei] Ohtani. He was ready to go.”

SoftBank Hawks right-hander Kodai Senga is pictured on Sept. 16, 2017.
Kodai Senga was not made available by the SoftBank Hawks to MLB teams via Japan’s posting system, and had to wait for free agency.

Senga made his professional debut at 19. He was on the doorstep of 30 when he came to California as a free agent to begin discussions with multiple MLB teams. The day before meeting with the Mets, Senga made a quick stopover in Arizona to have dinner with Sarfate, his teammate on six championship teams and a Brooklyn native who grew up going to games at Shea Stadium.

Before traveling to New York for the first time in his life, Senga asked his friend what playing there would be like.

“I just told him, ‘You better do good,’” Sarfate said. “It can be tough if you’re not playing up to that signing, so you better earn that $15 million a year because they’ll let you know if you’re not.

“I thought he’d pick the West Coast, being closer to Japan and with the travel, and he works out with [San Diego’s] Darvish in the offseason. But I guess he wanted the big lights.”

Pitcher Kodai Senga #41 of Japan throws in the bottom of the ninth inning during the SAMURAI JAPAN Send-off Friendly Match between CPBL Selected Team and Japan at the Yafuoku Dome on March 1, 2017 in Fukuoka, Japan.
Kodai Senga was a late draft pick who added around 10 mph to his fastball through training.
Getty Images

The spotlight is attractive because it was never supposed to go near him.

Long before signing a five-year, $75 million deal with the Mets — before winning Japan’s pitching Triple Crown and multiple Golden Glove awards, before throwing a no-hitter, starring at the World Baseball Classic and winning an Olympic gold medal — Senga was an anonymous three-digit player.

He wasn’t deemed worthy of a spot on a 70-man roster. He was akin to an NFL practice-squad player, donning a jersey with three numbers to distinguish him from the relevant players with a future in baseball. The Hawks took three other developmental players in the 2010 Nippon Professional Baseball Draft among 68 players overall taken before Senga before selecting a corner infielder from Gamagori High School — roughly 180 miles southwest of Tokyo — whose fastball didn’t touch 90 mph.

Pitching-specific training changed that. He earned a promotion in 2012, upgrading his jersey from No. 128 to 21 and getting bumped to a salary of 4.4 million yen ($33,117). In his first full season in 2013, he tied the Pacific League record for a reliever by pitching 34.1 consecutive scoreless innings and was selected for the NPB All-Star Game.

“No one knew anything about him, but then he took Japan by storm,” Sarfate said. “I saw him when he was raw. I remember when he got called up, and his first two games, he was pumping 99. And I’m like, ‘Who is this skinny kid?’ When I saw him last month, I’m like, man, Senga is put together now. He has worked a lot on gaining muscle and strength.

Kodai Senga laughs during an introductory press conference with the New York Mets at Citi Field on Dec. 19, 2022.
Kodai Senga was all smiles at his Mets introduction at Citi Field on Dec. 19.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“He came from a three-digit number and he has something to prove. He just worked really hard. He’s a competitor.”

Senga excelled despite suffering multiple injuries in his first few seasons then became a full-time starter in 2016. In 11 seasons, he went 87-44 with a 2.59 ERA, twice leading the league in strikeouts. Last season, he went 11-6 with a 1.94 ERA. 

His fastball can top 100 mph. His splitter is an illusion. The “ghost fork” shares the same release point as his fastball then violently drops from the zone, and Senga gets swings-and-misses on more than 50 percent of swings against it (an equivalent whiff rate to Jacob deGrom’s slider). Half of Senga’s strikeouts last season came from the pitch.

“He could have been in the big leagues at 25 and been established, like Tanaka or Ohtani. He was ready to go.”

former teammate Dennis Sarfate

Japanese opponents refer to him as a “super pitcher,” according to former Saitama Seibu Lions outfielder Brian O’Grady, who noted Senga’s stature in his homeland was akin to Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in the States.

“It felt like facing a Cy Young-type guy,” said O’Grady, who previously played with the Reds, Rays and Padres. “The fastball had some more life than it looked like on video. The drop that he has on the splitter, it legit needed to start above my head to be a strike. I chased plenty in the dirt and fastballs just above the zone.

“I haven’t really seen stuff like that here. It’s just a hard drop. It’s tough to pick up the difference from the fastball.”

Brian O'Grady #21 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights looks on from the on deck circle against the West Virginia Mountaineers during their Big East Conference Game at Bainton Field on on April 13, 2012.
Brian O’Grady, a Rutgers alum and former MLB journeyman who faced Senga in Japan, called him a “Cy Young-type guy.”
Getty Images

Moving more than 7,000 miles from home presents challenges. A full house for a big game at Citi Field shouldn’t be one of them.

Senga pitched the opening game of four consecutive Japan Series, helping the Hawks become the first team in more than four decades to win four straight titles in the league.

“We were the Yankees of Japan,” Sarfate said. “He was part of some big games. You’re a rock star over there. You’re getting 50,000 fans a game and they’re screaming the whole time. It’s not like a social thing where you go to the Yankees game. It’s such a different feel. The cheering section doesn’t stop. They sell beer until the third out in the ninth inning. It is not an easy setting. The reporters are not easy on them. Everything is scrutinized, so if you had a bad game, it was all over Japan. Every game is like a World Series game. It’s nuts. The ground would shake from the noise level.”

At the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Senga was named to the all-tournament team after allowing one run in 11 total innings, striking out 16. In two innings against the United States, Senga struck out four past and future MVPs (Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen) and former All-Star Eric Hosmer. In the 2020 Olympics gold-medal game in Japan, he threw a scoreless inning of relief.

“He’s got confidence, and he’s not gonna be shy about that,” Sarfate said. “But he never once got arrogant. He treated everyone the same, treated everyone with respect. He was always the same Senga you could joke with. He never took himself too seriously. I used to change the labels on his locker, changing his name to ‘superstar,’ and he just laughed it off.

“He doesn’t go out. He’s not a partier. He was just very quiet and did his work. If he has a bad first outing, he won’t care in terms of letting it get to him. He’ll just work harder.  Practicing is what [Japanese players] live for. Their reward is the game. He might not have the glamour of Ohtani, but as far as stuff-wise, they’re very comparable. He’s getting a later start, but I still think he’s capable of producing the same stuff he was doing over there.”

Senga often saw Ohtani when the future AL MVP starred for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Senga learned from Darvish, another former Fighters ace turned MLB All-Star. American teammates filled in every other blank the curious and burgeoning star was only permitted to imagine on the other side of the Pacific.

Dennis Sarfate #45 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers the pitch during the Mothers Day game against the New York Mets on May 13, 2007.
Former MLB pitcher Dennis Sarfate, who spent eight seasons as Kodai Senga’s teammate in Japan, says of the new Mets right-hander, “He’s got confidence … but he never once got arrogant.”
Getty Images

“He was always asking questions about the big leagues,” said former teammate Colin Rea. “He was very interested in finding out other pitchers’ routines, who is at the top of the big leagues, always trying to find out what they were doing and why they were able to have such great success.”

Though Senga is set to face the toughest set of lineups of his career — and set to turn 30 next month — his longtime teammate believes the right-hander’s best work may still be ahead.

“I once saw him start a game with seven straight sliders, and I went into the clubhouse and asked him, ‘Senga, did you just throw seven freaking sliders to start the game?’” Sarfate said. “He said the catcher called for it, and I said, ‘No, you shake him off.’ But [Japanese pitchers] don’t shake. They have these meetings where the catcher is the guy, and you listen to him. For some guys, it’s great. But for a guy with his talent, he has more of an upside with an American catcher and American pitching coaches and the staff he’s working with teaching him new things.”

Senga could have chosen a city where the baseball team lives in the shadow of other sports (Toronto, Texas). He could have joined a franchise without a generations-long title drought (Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants). He could have signed with the Padres or Angels and never exposed himself to a fraction of the potential criticism that will come with any underwhelming start in the country’s biggest market — as part of the largest payroll in the sport’s history — on a team expecting to win its first World Series in 37 years.

“As a ballplayer, it’s essential to live my life always aiming higher,” Senga told reporters last winter.

He’d waited years for this opportunity. He’d longed for such freedom. 

He couldn’t aim any higher.

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